Interview with Quinn Cheng

A Conversation with Quinn, Clinical Professor of Medicine

Your CV reveals a record of service towards improving many different areas of university life for students, residents and faculty. What compels you to action? 

Quinn ChengI don’t consider myself an activist per se but I don’t shy away from more controversial aspects of healthcare in general or what goes on at UCSF or within the School of Medicine. A lot of those service-oriented activities that I’ve been involved with have been in areas where there has been some controversy. For example, one area was how the university should handle potential conflicts of interest between faculty members and industry, specifically pharmaceutical companies. Physicians and pharmaceutical companies interact in many ways:  joint research, sponsorship and funding education opportunities or hiring physicians as consultants or speakers. These activities all have varying degrees of conflicts of interest where physicians’ intellectual honesty could potentially be compromised or be perceived by the public to be compromised. I find these controversies interesting and want the opportunity to be involved in debate and to help craft university policies. I relish the chance to be involved in the discussions. 

You currently live with your family on the coast outside of San Francisco. What about that area appeals to you?

We’d moved around the country quite a bit. I grew up for the most part in San Diego but also lived for a while in Houston. I moved to the Bay Area to attend college in 1985. I lived in San Francisco during medical school, in Emeryville during residency and for the first few years after I joined the faculty. I moved to Pacifica because of the combination of ease of commute, community and affordability. Having grown up in the suburbs, I prefer it to the city.

Looking around your office, I see a poster of the Gang of Four and a Kandinsky print. Who or what is the Gang of Four? And do you like art?

The Gang of Four is a post-punk rock band that emerged out of England in the late 70s. I went to one of their concerts when I was thirteen and again when they re-formed when I was pushing forty. The poster in my office was free swag, and as I’ve changed offices three times in three years, it somehow became office décor. I do listen to a lot of rock music but I don’t own a lot of rock posters.

I can’t remember why I have the Kandinsky. I think it was from an apartment from years ago. I prefer modern art; there’s not much before the Impressionist era that excites me. I like art from the Impressionists to contemporary.

Is it my imagination that you often reference pop culture, particularly from TV shows in the 70s and 80s, like the Fonz?

I only reference The Fonz in regards to “jumping the shark,” which is when something that used to be extremely cool has somehow lost its cool by running out of ideas or a fundamental change has cheapened the franchise. It comes from an episode in Happy Days when The Fonz water-skied over a shark pool. The absurdity of that episode and the general poor quality of the show after that led to the aphorism, “jumping the shark.”

I know you have a son. Is contemporary pop culture now stimulating him similarly? What is your favorite father-son activity?

My son just turned seven. He is not that into contemporary pop culture. He doesn’t watch a lot a TV or movies with the exception of Sponge Bob and the Mario Brothers game franchise. We go bicycling, which he’s just learned in the last year or so but we’re not doing anything particularly challenging. It’s just a way of getting out to places like the San Francisco Bay Trail. 

A few years back, you shared with me the best of the classic kung fu movies. Did you ever practice the art and do you have an updated list of recommendations?

No, I am completely incapable of kung fu in any style. There hasn’t been that much in the way of the old-school Hong Kong-produced kung fu movies recently. I still have to recommend some of the older films (e.g., The Bride with White Hair, Heroic Trio, and the Once Upon a Time in China series) over anything more recent, such as Stephen Chow’s kung fu comedies like Shaolin Soccer, where he takes a mundane activity like soccer and imbues them with the trappings of a kung fu movie. Hong Kong-produced cinema from the last 5-10 years has mostly been in the cops-and-gangsters mode. I don’t know if this has anything to do with reunification and any resultant changes in attitude or if it is just the influence of outside cinema on Hong Kong, but films have become more toned down, more cynical and a little more realistic than the more overblown, melodramatic, “heroic bloodshed” of the John Woo style - they now have a more world-weary philosophy. Infernal Affairs, upon which The Departed was closely based, is a very good film. One Night in Mongkok, which came out shortly afterwards, is also very good. A good, relatively recent film that harkens back to the more romanticized is Exiled, which is reminiscent of The Wild Bunch.

You seem to have the gift of the zinger, the quirky crack that makes your colleagues explode with laughter. How would you describe your sense of humor? 

I think a lot of the cracks I make do have some reference to pop culture or current events or television movies. I don’t see myself as particularly humorous; I might just be a little more relaxed during faculty meetings. It might be an example of the old adage that rank has its privileges; I can throw out a funny but possibly inappropriate comment that junior faculty or fellows might want to share but have to suppress! 

Please give me one final word to describe your outlook on life … or a movie line.

Keep calm carry onI’m thinking back to a British attitude during wartime while they were being bombed during the blitz that expressed certain stoicism. It meant more than “keeping a stiff upper lip” – don’t panic and go about your work: 

Thank you, Quinn.

- by Oralia Schatzman

View Quinn's professional bio | See previous faculty interviews